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A Little Travelin' Music

October 8, 2009 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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At the helm of Robinson are (from left) Sharon Laudenbach, Jim Sheil, Barbara Axelrod, Robert Axelrod and Nance Center

Despite the impending harsh reality of having to close two of its stores -- in Jenkintown, Pa., and Cherry Hill, N.J. -- later this month because of pressing economic conditions, Robinson Luggage, a major and trusted member of the local business community since 1927, remains highly viable, if not as physically visible as before, with stores in Center City, Yardley and Haverford; and also through the Internet.

"The travel industry has been hit hard by the recession, so, of course, people aren't buying as much luggage and travel-related items as they did before," said Sharon Laudenbach, president of the company, based in Pennsauken, N.J.

"The economy is much worse than it was immediately after Sept. 11, when there was a sharp decline for a few months, then a rebound and very strong finish to the end of the year, when people bought for the holiday season," she said. "And last summer, things started to worsen for us when we began to be affected by high gas prices and steep increases in the cost of airline tickets -- factors that meant people were driving less and flying much less, too."

That's not all. "Just about every pattern of life has changed today," lamented Laudenbach. "It used to be that people would drive everywhere. Now, they don't drive into the city, for example, or to our other stores nearly as often as they used to. In fact, 60 percent of our sales are online now."

Of its two Web sites, she described www.luggageonline.com as the company's "national online presence," and www.robinsonluggage.com as "our local approach."

The company carries a wide range of products, at a wide range of prices, said Laudenbach.

The story began, as noted, in 1927 when Ralph Robinson opened for business: "There was just one store in Philadelphia, a loft location at the corner of Juniper and Chestnut streets. The company has always prided itself in selling specialty luggage, briefcases and fine leather goods."

Twenty-eight year ago, Laudenbach's parents, Barbara and Robert Axelrod, "bought the business. Slowly, we expanded the chain to six stores, all within a 30-mile radius of our Broad-and-Walnut-streets flagship location. For many years, we operated as a brick-and-mortar business only, until about 1998, when the Internet came to be.

"Since that time, we've moved our entire operation to Pennsauken -- running a pick, pack and ship fulfillment center there for our stores and Internet business."

The company's staff, from the top down, is its "best commodity," she stated. "This is the absolute hardest part when talking about closing stores. Most of our staff has been with us for more than five years, many for more than 10 years, and several actually for more than 20 years.

"I always make the statement that our staff members are 'career retailers,' which is the biggest oxymoron. All of our staff is comprised of full-time, career-minded individuals, who keep the customer and the company's best interests at heart.

The business, she said, now rests in the hands of the family's second generation. "I'm president and my sister, Nancy Center, is vice president. Our father, who is retired partially, is still active in the business, though mostly from the outside."

A "Store-Closing Blowout Sale," with everything from 40 percent to 75 percent off, is under way at the Jenkintown store in the Baederwood Shopping Center, closing on Oct. 18, while a similar sale, with everything from 30 percent to 65 percent off, will begin at the Cherry Hill store on Oct. 14.

For more information, call 215-735-9859.

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